Air Force Eastern Range Innovates With Autonomous Flight Safety System

The Autonomous Flight Safety System first flew from the Eastern Range on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 CRS-10 Feb. 19, 2017. The use of AFSS reduces range space lift costs through reductions in range equipment maintenance and upgrades. (Credit: SpaceX)

By 1st Lt. Amanda Herman,
45th Space Wing Public Affairs

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The U.S. Air Force has been breaking barriers since 1947, and this year is no exception with the implementation of the Autonomous Flight Safety System.

The Eastern Range has supported more than 3,500 launches to date. With more stakeholders demanding access to space, both the Eastern and the Western Ranges were faced with developing innovative solutions to launch rockets without compromising public safety while accounting for aging infrastructure and recognizing that the wing has fewer resources and personnel accomplishing comparable and greater launch rates than before.

AFSS provides the capability to not only reduce reliance on aging range infrastructure, but enhances the ability to support more launches by expediting range turnaround times with more stringent safety standards and fewer people on console while reducing overall launch costs.

A self-contained, independent system mounted to the launch vehicle, AFSS determines if the launch vehicle poses an unacceptable hazard to people or property by using pre-established, programmed mission rules developed by Range Safety Flight Analysts. These configurable software-based rules are reliant on redundant flight processors using data from Global Positioning System and inertial measurement unit navigation sensors. If necessary, AFSS has the ability to destroy the rocket to ensure public safety. This system is crucial to increase overall range throughput to keep pace with the growing demands for providing assured access to space.

“Air Force Space Command partners with industry to advance our space capabilities.  AFSS allows us to increase the pace of launch, reduce costly infrastructure and more rapidly build a resilient space enterprise.  These benefits will be felt globally,” said General Jay Raymond, Air Force Space Command commander.  “It assures access to space while maintaining public safety.”

AFSS provides greater positive control in flight further downrange with a faster response time. It also increases over-the-horizon capability, which means there’s no longer limitations by ground equipment line-of-sight.

AFSS also supports multiple objects in simultaneous flight, which is crucial as companies build rockets with the intention to land multiple boosters simultaneously. This changes the expectation for legacy and new entrant companies of the space launch industry to implement AFSS at the earliest possible date.

“Our role to ensure public safety during launches using this system is unchanged,” said 45th Space Wing Chief Engineer Howard Schindzielorz. “Our Flight Termination System requirements still apply for design, test, operational performance and reliability. We still develop the mission rules to provide public safety, but the system works with mission rule data files loaded into the on-board AFSS units. This essentially shifts the workload to the front-end of the launch process.”

AFSS also increases launch availability due to fewer instrumentation requirements.

“Implementing AFSS on future launch operations allows us to increase our flexibility, adaptability and efficiency while providing more launch opportunities and greater public safety without having to add additional people,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander. “These changes will not only simplify ground support requirements thereby increasing launch on-time probability, but substantially reduce launch costs.”

By changing the legacy range operations paradigm, the use of AFSS reduces range space lift costs through reductions in range equipment maintenance and upgrades. It negates the need for operation, maintenance, and sustainment of extensive real-time software and redundant hardware ground systems as well as multiple training programs. AFSS also eliminates the costs of requirements needed for non-AFSS launches to include Uninterruptible Power Supplies, ground-system software, Independent Validation & Verification and testing equipment.

“Complete cost savings for the ranges and users can be realized when all range users implement AFSS,” said Maj. Allan Fonseca, Chief of Range, Policy and Procedure at Air Force Space Command.

The first operational use of AFSS was the successful SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-10 launch from Space Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Feb. 19, 2017. Adding to the complexity of that mission was the return of a first-stage booster landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station minutes following the launch.

“AFSS implementation was another historic and innovative first for the 45th Space Wing and the Eastern Range,” said Monteith. “It proved our team’s ability to meet evolving range demands and clearly demonstrates our commitment to meeting our mission partner’s needs.”

With more stakeholders demanding access to space, both the Eastern and Western Ranges will begin to launch at unprecedented rates, with the 45th Space Wing driving toward delivering a schedule that launches 48 missions a year by 2020.


  • Saturn13

    I hope if this is used for Crew, that it sends a signal to Dragon to abort first. Dragon survived the F-9 loss, but it might be better to move miles away before the Destruct.

  • JamesG

    Oh look! Something else that can go bad and cause LOV.

    I still think this is a dumb waste of money IMO. I mean having a standardized(er) FTS is good, but…. any launch requires that a range officer be present and declare the range “green”. And they have a manual control, why not just have them do what they do now and follow along the telemetry? Are they anticipating not having a range safety officer for launches, or for vehicles that don’t have telemetry or ground tracking? Stating that an entire AB dedicated to space launch can’t spare an RSO is pretty weak sauce.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    The current FTS is getting to be obsolete and very expansive to maintain in manpower and hard to find antiqued hardware.

    Also the current FTS can not support the return to launch site of multiple boosters with or without additional Oceanic booster recovery. In other words the new FTS is required for the Falcon Heavy boosters to be recoverable.

  • JamesG

    I was more grumbling about the manpower rational. Running the rocket range is ALL the PP guys at CCAFS and VBG do…

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    How are you supposed to track 3 incoming boosters and an upper-stage down range given the current system?

  • JamesG

    Three set ups on three different freqs? The upper stage is pretty much BLOS anyway and will take care of its own termination if things go wrong during its burn.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Yea, you must work for Raytheon because that would cost a mint to setup and maintain. And really you need to tracking the outgoing bogey too. Everyone is dumping fixed radar for cooperative GPS because it is much, much cheaper to maintain and scales way better; as same goes for ADS-B transponders. Unless you are actually doing defense detection, radar isn’t worth it. All that and now you have 3+ RSO sitting their on console with red buttons every time you fly…what a waste.

  • JamesG

    As opposed to giving the red button to a piece of software that is on the rocket…

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Software and hardware is separate from the avionics stack and independent GPS receivers. They are ships in the night. The system has proven to be effective during the F9R-Dev1 auto-termination a few years ago.

  • JamesG

    But they are riding on the same ship. I just disagree with “spending money to save money” and it is almost inevitable that we will lose a payload because of some software error or some parameter is entered in imperial units instead of metric.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Don’t look now but you are making an argument to manually control the rocket in the first place, because the same bad stuff can happen. Human systems also have a matter of time built in, and they tend to come sooner as workload and cycles increase.

  • roflplatypus

    IIRC, on CRS-7, the Falcon 9 first stage issued its own destruct command after loss of the 2nd stage, and then the Range sent its own just to be safe. They’ve already flown the rocket with this capability, this is just the first time they have it be primary.